The University Fund Eindhoven (UFE) donates 250,000 euros to TU/e researchers Maarten Merkx, Peter Zijlstra and Andrea Fiore for their joint project to develop faster and cheaper detection techniques for COVID-19 and future viral infections. The UFE money comes from alumni of the TU/e.
Henk Kivits, chairman of the University Fund Eindhoven: “One of our main goals is to link alumni donations to health research projects. Especially now, there is an acute need for initiatives to flourish that help curb the Coronavirus. We therefore strongly hope that our contribution will help the TU/e researchers to quickly make available the improved test technology that is so desperately needed”.
Robert-Jan Smits, Chairman of the Executive Board of the TU/e: “We are delighted with this generous gift from the UFE. It shows the social commitment of our alumni and their involvement in TU/e’s research. The supported project is an excellent choice. It focuses on the most acute problem worldwide, and it lies at the intersection of two areas in which TU/e excels, health technology and photonics”.
The reason for the research is that existing technology to demonstrate COVID-19 is far from perfect. There are no tests yet that can quickly and reliably determine whether someone has antigens (virus proteins) in their blood, and is therefore infected. There is also a strong need for handy tests that can quickly show whether someone has antibodies in their blood, and is, or has been infected. And the available tests do not give a definite answer right on the spot, in other words, they are not ‘point-of-care’. The tests require several steps, which is costly and takes time.
Glow in the dark
Researchers Maarten Merkx (Protein Engineering), Peter Zijlstra (Molecular Plasmonics) and Andrea Fiore (Nanophotonics) have joined forces to develop detection techniques that do not have these drawbacks. Merkx has recently developed a technology based on bioluminescence to detect certain diseases on the spot. This involves the use of luminous ‘glow in the dark’ strips that change color when certain antibodies or antigens are present in the blood. Merkx has already made a first version that reacts to the Coronavirus, but this needs to be improved.
Fiore and Zijlstra’s approach is different, but related. They work with two photonic chips, the first of which they develop in collaboration with Merkx. This chip binds antigens or antibodies in the fluid in which it is located, for example blood, which changes the refractive index of the fluid near the chip. The two researchers then want to observe this minute change in refractive index with a second photonic chip, which gives an immediate answer as to whether the person has or had the Corona virus.
The researchers expect the first results in three to six months after the start of the project. The technology is being developed so that it can be applied broadly and can therefore also be used in future pandemics.